Judge's concern about lawyers liking him sometimes interfered with ethics compliance, commission says

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A judge’s concern about whether lawyers were mad at him at times overrode his compliance with ethics rules, according to the California Commission on Judicial Performance.

The commission said Judge John Laettner of Contra Costa County should be removed from the bench for “a significant amount of misconduct” that included inappropriate comments about women’s looks and engaging with lawyers in a way that is governed by his emotions., the East Bay Times and Bloomberg Law have coverage of the commission’s Nov. 6 order.

“His desire to have certain attorneys like him and not be upset or ‘mad at him’ about his rulings, and action he has taken when he was angry or upset with them, has, at times, overridden his compliance with the canons of judicial ethics,” the commission said.

In one instance, Laettner told a deputy public defender that he was mad at her about a case, and that is why he had an in-chambers conversation with the prosecutor without the presence of the deputy public defender.

Several other times, Laettner would ask the public defender to approach the bench after he ruled against her to see whether she was mad at him. “This is improper because it creates the appearance of impartiality and is inconsistent with his duty to remain neutral as to those appearing before him,” the commission said.

The commission said Laettner made undignified comments to the deputy public defender that included:

• A statement to the effect of, “Sometimes having you in here is like having a teenage daughter—you constantly argue with me and you just keep talk, talk, talking until you get what you want.”

• Winking at the public defender during a hearing and then asking her whether she saw it.

• Telling the public defender in chambers that she was a “hard one,” and her parents hadn’t spanked her enough. Laettner had testified that he made the comment because he wanted to “correct her attitude,” and he doesn’t want to see people who are upset. The public defender was transferred after she notified her supervisor about Laettner’s comments.

Laettner also made improper comments to others, the commission found. They included:

• Calling one deputy public defender “his favorite” and “teacher’s pet.”

• Referring to a deputy prosecutor as “beautiful” or “lovely” and saying she was one of his “favorite attorneys.”

• Asking a deputy public defender “what kind of Asian” she was and remarking that he knew Japanese twins in college who were “very beautiful.” When speaking to another lawyer, he referred to the deputy public defender as “the attractive young Asian woman.”

• Referring to a court reporter as “very pretty” or “beautiful.” The court reporter testified that she quit working in Laettner’s department because she couldn’t take the unwelcome comments and his “favoritism towards tall, skinny blondes, young females [and] petite Asian women.”

• Commenting while presiding over a domestic violence case, “On a lighter note, I can take judicial notice that women can drive you crazy.”

The commission also said Laettner sometimes failed to disclose his son’s employment with the district attorney’s office, and he increased bail for a defendant without a hearing.

Laettner is appealing the decision.

The commission cited evidence that Laettner had an exemplary work ethic during his 13 years as a judge and was responsible and conscientious. Many witnesses testified in favor of Laettner. In light of that evidence, the usual punishment would be a censure, the commission said.

But the commission said it opted to recommend removal from the bench because Laettner displayed a lack of candor during the ethics proceedings and had acknowledged only part of his misconduct.

Laettner has already been removed from the bench pending the outcome of any appeal, according to the Contra Costa courts.

Laettner’s lawyer, James Murphy, told Bloomberg Law that Laettner “was denied due process in multiple ways.” Murphy said the commission’s decision “is slanted and does not mention the evidence directly contradicting the witnesses it deemed ‘credible.’ ”

Laettner issued a statement through his attorneys to the East Bay Times.

“I love being a judge and have been honored to do this job for the last 13 and a half years,” the statement said. “I so appreciate the support of my colleagues and have so much respect for many of the attorneys who appear before me. I have very much enjoyed helping those who have appeared in front of me. We will be appealing to the California Supreme Court as I feel my due process rights were violated.”

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